1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agrippa Von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius
AGRIPPA VON NETTESHEIM, HENRY CORNELIUS (1486–1535) German writer, soldier, physician, and by common reputation a magician, belonged to a family many members of which had been in the service of the house of Habsburg, and was born at Cologne on the 14th of September 1486. The details of his early life are somewhat obscure, but he appears to have obtained a knowledge of eight languages, to have studied at the university of Cologne and to have passed some time in France. When quite young he entered the service of the German king, Maximilian I., and in 1508 was engaged in an adventurous enterprise in Catalonia. He probably served Maximilian both as soldier and as secretary, but his wonderful and varied genius was not satisfied with these occupations, and he soon began to take a lively interest in theosophy and magic. In 1509 he went to the university of Dôle, where he lectured on John Reuchlin’s De Verbo mirifico, but his teaching soon caused charges of heresy to be brought against him, and he was denounced by a monk named John Catilinet in lectures delivered at Ghent. As a result Agrippa was compelled to leave Dôle; proceeding to the Netherlands he took service again with Maximilian. In 1510 the king sent him on a diplomatic mission to England, where he was the guest of Colet, dean of St Paul’s, and where he replied to the accusations brought against him by Catilinet. Returning to Cologne he followed Maximilian to Italy in 1511, and as a theologian attended the council of Pisa, which was called by some cardinals in opposition to a council called by Pope Julius II. He remained in Italy for seven years, partly in the service of William VI., marquis of Monferrato, and partly in that of Charles III., duke of Savoy, probably occupied in teaching theology and practising medicine.
In 1515 he lectured at the university of Pavia on the Pimander of Hermes Trismegistus, but these lectures were abruptly terminated owing to the victories of Francis I., king of France. In 1518 the efforts of one or other of his patrons secured for Agrippa the position of town advocate and orator, or syndic, at Metz. Here, as at Dôle, his opinions soon brought him into collision with the monks, and his defence of a woman accused of witchcraft involved him in a dispute with the inquisitor, Nicholas Savin. The consequence of this was that in 1520 he resigned his office and returned to Cologne, where he stayed about two years. He then practised for a short time as a physician at Geneva and Freiburg, but in 1524 went to Lyons on being appointed physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I. In 1528 he gave up this position, and about this time was invited to take part in the dispute over the legality of the divorce of Catherine of Aragon by Henry VIII.; but he preferred an offer made by Margaret, duchess of Savoy and regent of the Netherlands, and became archivist and historiographer to the emperor Charles V. Margaret’s death in 1530 weakened his position, and the publication of some of his writings about the same time aroused anew the hatred of his enemies; but after suffering a short imprisonment for debt at Brussels he lived at Cologne and Bonn, under the protection of Hermann of Wied, archbishop of Cologne. By publishing his works he brought himself into antagonism with the Inquisition, which sought to stop the printing of De occulta philosophia. He then went to France, where he was arrested by order of Francis I. for some disparaging words about the queen-mother; but he was soon released, and on the 18th of February 1535 died at Grenoble. He was married three times and had a large family. Agrippa was a man of great ability and undoubted courage, but he lacked perseverance and was himself responsible for many of his misfortunes. In spite of his inquiring nature and his delight in novelty, he remained a Catholic, and had scant sympathy with the teaching of the reformers. His memory was nevertheless long defamed in the writings of the monks, who placed a malignant inscription over his grave. Agrippa’s work, De occulta philosophia, was written about 1510, partly under the influence of the author’s friend, John Trithemius, abbot of Würzburg, but its publication was delayed until 1531, when it appeared at Antwerp. It is a defence of magic, by means of which men may come to a knowledge of nature and of God, and contains Agrippa’s idea of the universe with its three worlds or spheres. His other principal work, De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium atque Excellentia Verbi Dei Declamatio, was written about 1527 and published at Antwerp in 1531. This is a sarcastic attack on the existing sciences and on the pretensions of learned men. In it Agrippa denounces the accretions which had grown up around the simple doctrines of Christianity, and wishes for a return to the primitive belief of the early Christian church. He also wrote De Nobilitate et Praecellentia Feminei Sexus, dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy, De matrimonii sacramento and other smaller works. An edition of his works was published at Leiden in 1550 and they have been republished several times.
See H. Morley, Life of H. C. Agrippa (London, 1856); A. Prost, Les Sciences at les arts occultes au XVI. siècle: Corneille Agrippa sa vie et ses œuvres (Paris, 1881); A. Daguet, Cornelius Agrippa (Paris, 1856).